Authors: Howard Engel
The gate, in its open position, swung back and stood twice as high as the wire fence. The crossbar at the top was as high as the very largest trucks. Inside the gate, a small security hut looked unpainted but strategically well place to cause as much trouble for people like Alex Pásztory and me as possible. Beyond the hut, the private road ran past a small administration building. Further along, there were warehouses, garages and Quonset huts. A line of heavy trucks stood guard on one side of a wide tarmac like they were armoured tanks. There was little human activity as far as I could see. I walked along the road, on my side, until I was across from the first of the Quonset huts. By now I was far enough along the Scrampton Road so that I didn’t have to worry about being seen from the Turkey Roost. I crossed to the other side and approached the fence.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Alex hadn’t had time to give me any hints. There was nothing on the metal sides of the hut itself except the texture that weathered aluminum runs to. Along the narrow passage between the hut and the fence, there was a pile of discarded junk: pine boards, rusty metal stakes, a roll of snow-fencing, another of rusty wire fence, an oil drum with more garbage in it. Then I spotted something odd. A large seven was leaning against the drum. The numeral seven! On the ground near it were two metal arms, one larger than the other. Although they were face down, I could see that they were the arms or hands of a large clock. Made just like the hands on an old-fashioned
watch, they would need a clock face of at least fifteen feet across to operated. A large seven and two hands of a giant clock! What the hell was I supposed to make of that?
* * *
Brian O’Mara’s car was still warm in the driveway when I touched the hood on my way up to the porch of the small one-storey house about half-way up Junkin Street. The house was stucco with a pebble-dashed finish common to houses built during the Depression. An overweight woman with her hair under a net came and opened the door, giving me a glimpse into a living-room with a flight of plaster ducks hanging on the wall I could see best. The television was blaring unseen in another corner.
“Yes?” she said. I could tell she was not going to be helpful. I told her who I was. “He’s not back from work yet,” she said, trying not to look at the car in the driveway. “I don’t know what time he’s coming home tonight.”
“You told me he gets off at four,” I reminded her.
“Well, yes, that’s true. But tonight, I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
“I hope it isn’t anything serious. Nothing as bad as what happened to Jack Dowden, for instance.” She took that as though I’d hit her in the midsection when the referee was turned away. She let her mouth sag open.
“Well he ain’t here. That’s all.”
“May I wait?” I said, speaking correctly after her “ain’t.”
“I don’t know when he’ll be back,” she protested, trying to end the conversation with the door. I held it from slamming with my foot. “He ain’t here and I don’t know when he’ll be back!” she repeated.
“I just want to see him for a few minutes, Mrs. O’Mara. I know he’s in there!”
“I swear to God he ain’t!” she said. Almost at the same moment a short, burly silhouette moved in behind her. He was wearing an open plaid shirt over a T-shirt and carrying the sport section of the
“Are you Cooperman?” he asked, paying no attention to his wife’s blasphemy. “I was talkin’ to Irma about you. You know, Irma …”
“I know which Irma you mean,” I said. “She told me you were a good friend of Jack Dowden’s.”
“That’s right. She told you straight.”
“Brian, I thought we talked about this,” the woman in the hairnet interrupted, still testing my foot with the door.
“Dora, let me handle this. Okay?” He pulled Dora away from the door, making a space for me to push through. I moved through the vestibule and followed Brian O’Mara into the living-room. “Dora, be a sweetheart and go get us both a beer. I got a few chilling in the freezer. You drink beer, don’tcha, Mr. Cooperman?”
“Sure. Thanks.” He sat down on the low-slung couch and indicated that I should make myself comfortable as well. I sank deeply into a broad-beamed occasional chair
facing the TV. Brian touched a remote-control box and the set went black. From the kitchen we could hear sounds of Dora taking out her fury on the freezer door and the opener.
“Don’t mind Dora. She’s just trying to look after me. It’s just her way.” I nodded my complete sympathy and understanding. He shoved along the couch so that we were nearly knee to knee. Next to us lay a coffee-table with a checkerboard pattern worked in two colours of inlaid wood. There were more plaster game birds in full flight behind me, as well as a genuine oil painting of the Toronto skyline with the whole thing reflected in a black velvet lake. I recognized the CN Tower both right-side-up and upside-down.
“You’re still a driver for Kinross?”
“Sure. Seven years come next April. Jack got me in. I used to haul for Sunderland. Kinross is closer to home.”
“You told the inquest a year ago that you thought that Jack had not been keeping his mind on the job. Did he tell you what was bothering him?”
Brian O’Mara thought about that before answering. He had been giving me the once-over as I sat there leaning back in the chair to increase the distance between us. “Jack was a real careful driver,” he said. “Nobody ever had any trouble with him. He could go twenty-four, thirty hours at a shot without sleep when I first met him. He never gave nobody any Mickey Mouse nonsense. If you get what I mean.”
“But he was worried just before his death?”
“Not worried exactly, but not keeping his head straight. He was, what do you call it?—muzzy the last couple of weeks.”
“That’s what you said at the inquest, but Irma didn’t believe you.”
Here Dora came in with the beer. She dropped the bottles and recently rinsed glasses on the coffee-table for the men to sort out. She gave O’Mara a look that aspired to be meaningful and left us alone again. I poured a very cold bottle into a damp glass, watching the beads of moisture form on the sides as I waited for the head to settle. O’Mara waved his glass at me without saying anything, but I think he intended it to be a toast of some kind; mute, cautious, good wishes. He sipped at his beer, then held it out to look at and made a comment about the first beer after a day’s work that didn’t add to my investigation.
“We were talking about Irma,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, I know. Irma don’t believe that it was an accident. She thinks that us witnesses just cooked up a story and got the coroner to rubber-stamp what we said.”
“That’s about the size of it. Where were you at the time of the accident?”
“I was just coming out of the locker hut with Pegoraro. I heard Jack yell and saw the truck roll into him. He went right under the Freightliner. Just like I said at the inquest. It was pretty gruesome, I’ll tell you.”
“Is Pegoraro still working at Kinross?”
“No. Last I heard he was out in Alberta somewhere, Hinton, I think. He liked long runs, Luigi did.”
“And the other fellow? The other witness.”
“Teddy Puisans? He went back to the old country. Somewhere in eastern Europe. Latvia, maybe. He’d made a pile, never got married. He had it made, and then his mother writes him from behind the Iron Curtain somewhere that she’s sick and can’t feed the geese no more. Just Teddy’s luck. He cut out about four months ago.”
“So, that makes you the only witness to the accident still on the scene,” I said.
O’Mara grinned like I’d just told him that he was the oldest living inhabitant, that he occupied a place of honour, but one that no one would attempt to deprive him of.
“Wasn’t Jack crushed against a cement-block wall, Brian?”
“Yeah. There was a wall there. But by the time I got there, he was under the truck. Look, Mr. Cooperman, we’re talking a whole year ago, right? More than a year. I try to put such things out of my head. The doctor up at the yard told me that it wasn’t good to let my mind linger, you know what I mean?”
“Sure. It’s isn’t healthy, right?”
“Hey, I didn’t mean that! I meant—”
“I know. I know. How wide is the bumper on a Freightliner truck?”
“Huh? Look, ah, they made a few models.”
“You know the one I mean. The one that ran into your pal, Jack Dowden.”
“Yeah, oh, yeah. That one. Well, the bumper runs right across the front, about a foot wide, I guess.” O’Mara was nearing the bottom of his glass of beer. It didn’t appear that it had had a cooling effect on him. His neck stood out red against his plaid shirt, which was hard to do. “Look, Mr. Cooperman, I can’t remember that long ago. I been over it so often, I don’t remember what I saw any more. Honest.”
“Okay, I’ll change the subject for now. But I might come back to it some day. Tell me about the kind of things Jack was talking about around the yard just before he was killed.”
“I told you. Just stuff he shouldn’t have worried about.”
“You mean the waste he was carting?”
“Not only that, Mr. Cooperman. He was talking about how we were killing the Great Lakes and poisoning the rivers and all that stuff you see on the CBC. He was getting to be a broken record every time I seen him. He wasn’t paying attention to his work. And him once the most careful driver around. One time nobody had a better sheet than Jack. No major traffic convictions, no pile-ups, no subpoenas, nothin’.” O’Mara leaned over into my airspace and pushed his empty glass into my chest for emphasis. “I’ll tell you somethin’, Mr. Cooperman,” he said, “I always modelled myself on Jack Dowden. I’ll tell you that for nothin’. There were lots of young guys around the yard, guys that look like they know it all, but they watched Jack like a hawk, let me tell you. If Jack wore a
leather jacket, all these young kids would start wearing them too. It was a laugh to see it, but, hey, what a tribute, right?”
“Did you and Jack talk about his environmental worries?”
“I don’t get paid for talkin’! I just go in the office, pull my work order, the waybills and I’m off. I might see Jack for a second hauling his tractor over to a trailer, but more than wave at each other, we didn’t talk.”
“But you told the inquest that he’d been less attentive to his work.”
“Yeah, well. You don’t have to have a conversation to see that he was getting careless.”
“In what way?”
“Well … Hey, you’re forgettin’ this was some fifteen months ago!”
“I’m not asking what he had for lunch; I’m asking what he told you.”
“The talk around the yard was that he was bending everybody’s ears with all that pollution stuff.”
“But he didn’t talk to you about it? Not just before the accident?”
“Naw, the last time we shot the shit was over coffee a few days after he was a finalist in the National Roadeo Championships in Toronto. Jack could haul a rig through the eye of a needle. Then we talked again. Where was it now? Must have been that truck-stop called The Fifth Wheel near the Hydro Canal fill. About two miles from Niagara Falls.” I made a mental note to look the place up
on a map. O’Mara went on. “He told me about the books he’d been looking at and explained about the chemicals we were hauling. We never asked questions about that kind of thing. We’re paid to drive, not ask for information we won’t understand anyway. Besides, it’s an old story in this business: the less you know, the safer you sleep. You know what I mean?”
“Were you dumping in sewers at night?”
“I’m not saying a thing about that.”
“I’m not asking for the record; I just want to get a handle on things. I’m not working for the cops, you know. Just Irma. Just trying to find out if there was something fishy about Jack’s death.”
“Christ, Cooperman, I don’t know you and I don’t owe you! Hell, you could be wearing a wire for all I know. I think we’re getting close to the end of this.”
“Okay, I’m nearly through. Wasn’t it very convenient that there should be a doctor on hand at the time of the accident?”
“Dr. Carswell comes in maybe once a week. Nothin’ strange about that. Mr. Caine wasn’t there, just Webster, the yard manager.”
“Funny he wasn’t called as a witness.”
“If you say its funny, then I guess it’s funny.”
“Okay, what about the dumping? Off the record.”
“We haul all kinds of stuff to local dumps. That’s it.”
“What about the stuff that doesn’t get to the dumps.”
“Okay, you better finish your beer,” he said. And I knew I wasn’t going to get any more out of him just then.
He wasn’t visibly sweating, but he wiped his forehead with a neat white handkerchief just the same. I thought truckers carried red bandanas. I was obviously out of date about a lot of things.
I thanked him for his help. Even knowing that there was more where that came from, I could see he was scared. I didn’t blame him. In his place, I’d be scared to death. O’Mara watched me move closer to the bottom of my glass in silence. I’m a slow drinker, so the silence was considerable. At last, as I hoped, he filled it. A witness who is trying to say nothing is often undone by a long pause in the conversation. “Look, Mr. Cooperman, I’m not a hard guy to get along with. I’m just lookin’ out for my end.”
“I understand, Brian. Don’t give it a thought. We won’t be able to bring Jack back from the dead, will we?”
“There’s a lot of money tied up in that business over at Kinross,” he said. “It’s a sweet line of work from their point of view: all profit and no risks.”
“What do you mean ‘no risks’?”
“Well, for one thing, who’d believe somebody like Jack or me when there’s Mr. Caine and Dr. Carswell on the other side. And for another thing,” he said, taking the last of his beer down an open throat, “and for another thing, Kinross and the city are in bed together on this waste-disposal business.”
“You heard me. It’s no secret. Kinross gets rid of the city’s unwanted waste the same as it does for industry. If
the city calls the cops on Kinross, it’ll be calling the cops on itself. And you and me know the people downtown aren’t that stupid.”
What O’Mara said enlarged the picture I’d been working on. If City Hall was involved, I was creeping into a bigger rats’ nest than I’d imagined. I tried not to let O’Mara see how worried he’d made me. Why can’t cases get simpler instead of always getting more complicated?